Pell City Police Department
Pell City is located in northeast Alabama, 35 miles east of Birmingham, with an estimated 2006 population of 11,894 (up from 9,565 in 2000). Residents are predominantly White (83 percent) and Black (15 percent). The median household income is $37,250, and 11 percent of residents live in poverty. Of residents 25 years of age and over, 16 percent have a college degree. The Pell City Police Department has 30 sworn and 2 non-sworn personnel.
Through the OVC grant, the Pell City Police Department created a Victim Service Unit to address the needs of crime victims in its jurisdiction. While the department was experiencing an increasing number of calls from victims, it was also aware that many crimes were unreported, particularly domestic violence. As a first step in implementing the unit, the department assessed local response to victims and gaps in services by surveying crime victims and police officers. The results of the needs assessment led the department to assign a full-time victim services officer (VSO) to follow up with victims of crimes against persons and coordinate victim services.
The selected VSO was an officer in the department with extensive education and experience in counseling—he was both a minister and a licensed professional counselor. His role was to make initial contact with victims either at the crime scene, when on duty or called in after hours, at the police department if victims came in to report a crime, or by telephone within 3 days after the crime was reported. He offered crisis counseling to victims during the initial contact, assessed their needs, and referred them to local agencies. He made counseling referrals to licensed counselors associated with local organizations that offered services for free or on a sliding fee scale. On starting the position, the VSO immediately began to provide victim assistance. In hindsight, he thought it would have been useful to first have a period focused solely on the administrative tasks involved in starting the unit, such as developing written materials and a filing system, identifying and cataloging local resources, developing a volunteer base, and training officers.
The VSO had a good working relationship with the officers in the department, which was critical to the unit being accepted and integrated into the department. The VSO coordinated several well-attended training seminars on topics such as critical incident stress management, domestic violence, and elder abuse. The Victim Service Unit also sponsored training for a volunteer chaplain program. The goal of this program was to have clergy assist the VSO in providing onsite assistance and referral services for victims. Chaplains were required to be trained in critical incident stress management within 6 months of becoming volunteers.
A victims' rights brochure was developed; officers were instructed to inform victims of their rights and give them the brochure. Brochures were also given to merchants to display near their cash registers. Pens with the unit's phone number were passed out to crime victims and the public. The VSO conducted community education presentations at local churches, schools, and social organizations that addressed victims' rights and domestic violence law. Several interviews with the VSO and articles he wrote were printed in local and surrounding newspapers to announce the new unit. The VSO also worked closely with the VSO from the district attorney's office to make sure all victims received services from one or both offices.
During the last year and a half of the grant, the VSO assisted more than 300 victims, providing crime scene assistance, referrals for social services, and help obtaining protection orders. Officers provided victims with brochures and communicated with the VSO regarding victims' needs in individual cases. Based on feedback from victims and police officers indicating general satisfaction with the services the unit provided, the department decided to continue all of the implemented services. To sustain these efforts, it incorporated the VSO's activities into the department's city-funded detective division.